Customers Save a San Francisco Sci-Fi Bookstore, at Least for Now

Borderlands Books, on Valencia Street in the Mission.  (Adam Fagen/Flickr)

By now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that independent bookstores are having a hard time. There’s Amazon, the growing popularity of e-books, rising rents and the fact that while bookstores can have loyal followings, sales aren’t really increasing.

Those were the challenges that Borderlands Books in San Francisco’s Mission District was facing. The store specializes in sci-fi and mystery books, and its owners say it could have kept chugging along if not for yet another factor: a San Francisco ordinance raising the minimum wage, which is $11.05 an hour now and is scheduled to hit $15 an hour by 2018.

“By 2018, we’d be losing $25,000 per year,” said Alan Beatts, an owner of the store. And so, Beatts announced earlier this month that Borderlands would eventually close.

But at a public meeting to discuss the store's future, customers urged him to reconsider. As a result, Borderlands decided to try a paid sponsorship model to keep the store open. Owners said that if 300 people bought a $100 one-year sponsorship by the end of March, they'd be able to keep operating.


In exchange, sponsors would get a few special perks. Among them, they could rent the bookstore and adjoining cafe for parties if they paid for staffing. Borderlands wouldn’t charge a fee -- an alluring benefit since Borderlands is on a trendy block in the Mission. But for the most part, the sponsorship offer pretty much followed the public radio membership model: Customers would give money to basically keep the bookstore afloat.

The response to the sponsorship offer was spectacular. Less than 48 hours after the idea was floated, 300 people signed up. Borderlands will stay open -- at least until next year, when it will hold another sponsorship drive to help cover its new wage costs.

“I hope that what we’re doing with the sponsorship program could be something that’s applicable to other bookstores,” Beatts said. “I also hope that it could be applicable to other small businesses.”

Beatts says the business has to have a dedicated customer base, but he imagines everything from video stores to the mom-and-pop hardware shops could try it.